June 4

1783 — First demonstration of the Montgolfiere hot air balloon


Another item to cross off your bucket list.  You are finally enjoying a ride in a hot-air balloon, drifting calmly over the beautiful Napa Valley.

You’d opted for what the brochure called a “semi-private” flight, with a dozen passengers.  The other option involved a larger basket, and twenty-plus riders.

Even so, things felt a little cramped.  They fit as many people onboard as they could, which meant some folks got pushed back to the middle — which included you.

And, as usual, the tallest people had the best position, standing straight and blocking the people behind them.  One man let his four- or five-year-old son ride above his shoulders, which didn’t seem safe.  Someone jostled against you, pushing you into the man, and you were afraid the kid would get bumped overboard.

“Watch it, would you, buddy?”  As if it were all your fault.

You craned your neck to peer between the tall heads, and got a glorious view of the valley.  Trees looked so different from above, and patches of  grass spread out in patterns like a green and yellow quilt. You passed over a lake, and other rainbow-colored balloons glided into view alongside.  Suddenly the other passengers didn’t matter.  You floated in sky over a beautiful, endless stretch of nature.

The most miraculous thing was a sight you hadn’t anticipated:  your own balloon’s reflection on water; the ripple of the balloon’s shadow over greenery.

A hot air burner roared behind you, and at times you felt too close to the flame.  Gusts of hot air pushed up, inflating the balloon and also puffing the back flap of your t-shirt.

You turned to locate the guide, and spotted him standing next to a control lever.  His red windbreaker jacket puffed out behind him, making him look like a hunchback.

“Is it supposed to get this hot?”

Instead of answering, Quasimodo smiled and gave the lever a hard yank.  He peeled off his windbreaker, revealing that the hump was actually a strapped-on parachute.

The balloon lurched up, and the passengers squealed in surprise, grabbing the edge of the basket or each other, laughing.  You thought maybe the fool guide was going to attempt some stunt flying — maybe a three-quarter turn or a looped inversion.

Instead, as the balloon surged higher, the guide took a flying leap and tumbled over the side.


[…continued tomorrow…]